How Countries Free of Covid Travel Restrictions Are Quickly Recovering Their Tourist Arrivals
The Challenge of Post-Pandemic International Travel
International leisure travel in the post-pandemic world poses challenges to travelers ranging from PCR tests and vaccination requirements prior to departure, to quarantine periods and local safety protocols once they’ve arrived at their destination.
At Infomineo, we previously published an article on how COVID-19 impacted the global travel and tourism industry, in which we outlined the major effects of the pandemic on the different tourism sectors.
In this new study, we analyzed the arrival statistics of different countries, alongside the travel restrictions they put in place, allowing us to identify several trends among countries that have lifted all COVID-19 travel restrictions, and key differences between them and the countries that have maintained said restrictions.
We examined the number of visitors to four countries, two of which reopened their borders post-lockdown with no COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, and the other two of which maintain travel restrictions to the current day.
We grouped the countries into color groups as indicated below.
Group 1: Countries with no travel restrictions: Mexico & Albania – Blue Group
The first country in this group, Mexico, is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, with 95-99 million visitors annually. The second, Albania, has not historically received such high levels of visitors.
Group 2: Countries with travel restrictions: Spain & Italy – Red Group
The countries in this group traditionally rank among the top-visited countries worldwide, with each of Spain and Italy expecting around 82 and 65 million annual visitors respectively.
We set out to examine how each set of countries has fared in terms of recovering previous numbers of visitors and looked at the number of monthly visitor arrivals to all four countries—both pre & post-lockdown—to discern arrival trends and provide you with the relevant insights.
How Lifting Covid-Restrictions Aids in the Quick Recovery of Tourist Arrivals
Having examined the tourist arrival figures in the countries selected, it appears that international travelers currently favor destinations with minimal or no COVID-19 restrictions, over those with such restrictions in place.
This is clearly visible in the case of Albania, which opened its borders to travel in 2020 and implemented a visa-free initiative in 2021. Global tourism giant, Mexico, also witnessed a quick resurgence in tourist arrivals after reopening its borders, averaging 81% of their pre-pandemic monthly visitors during the peak season of 2021.
Despite its rich archaeological sites, pristine beaches, and low prices, Albania has not historically figured among the top travel destinations for many countries. We leveraged the country’s tourism statistics and concluded that most of Albania’s tourist arrivals are from its neighboring border countries (Kosovo, North Macedonia, Italy & Greece).
In May 2020, Albania reopened its borders to welcome back tourists after the country reported no new coronavirus deaths for more than three consecutive weeks.
In April of the following year, Albania announced that it would permit visa-free travel, through December 31st, 2021, to citizens of Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, India, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. The new initiative allowed citizens of these countries to visit Albania, without the need to obtain a visa nor the need to present negative PCR test results on arrival.
After the country implemented its free-visa initiative, the number of tourist arrivals during its high season in 2021 reached 97.7% of the tourist flows registered in 2019. The share of visitors from new markets increased from 8.4% prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, to 19.1% in 2021, with new market visitors taking advantage of the absence of visa and COVID-19 travel restrictions to Albania.
We interviewed Geri Cakoni, head of sales for the inbound-tourism company Good Albania, who explained that the initiatives provided much-needed relief in terms of incoming tourism. This was especially true, he highlighted, for the first few months after reopening, when tourism figures were stale and the countries from which travelers usually arrived were still reluctant to open to Albania for tourism.
He explained further that his company witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of inquiries from middle eastern travelers and estimated that 20-30% of his company’s clients this year have been a direct result of the visa-free entry initiative.
Thanks to its vivid landscapes, coastal resorts, cultural festivals, and archeological ruins, Mexico has consistently ranked among the world’s top visited countries globally by the number of tourist arrivals.
In March 2020 it closed its borders to travel due to the international lockdown, and an increase in COVID-19 cases locally. It reopened for tourism in July of the same year, however, and did so without putting any COVID-19 restrictions on travelers in place.
In July 2020, shortly after opening for tourism, the country recorded tourist flows of 1.3 million visitors (around 33% of pre-pandemic rates). By December, the number of tourists reached 2.6 million (55% of pre-pandemic rates). Because these figures were recorded during mid and late 2020, we believe that the low figures were due to the international lock-down and travel restrictions from the source markets.
In 2021, the number of visitors increased to between 1.6 and 3.3 million tourists monthly, representing a recovery rate as high as 81% in June & July 2021, when compared to 2019 tourist arrivals. The country appears to be well on its way to pre-COVID 19 levels of tourist arrivals due to its early border reopening and the non-imposition of travel restrictions.
Are Top Tourism Destinations Still in Pole Position?
In the second part of our study, we examined the arrivals of tourists to Spain and Italy, two of the most popular tourist destinations globally. Spain receives around 82 million visitors annually while Italy welcomes 65 million tourists, on average, per year.
Due to their delayed border reopening, however, coupled with tight COVID-19 restrictions & requirements, both still struggle to recover pre-pandemic levels of tourist arrivals. Both countries allow only vaccinated visitors and require that these same visitors present proof of a negative PCR test before departure from their home countries. Because both countries also lie within the EU, their border openings are further subject to EU regulations.
Spain suspended tourism and travel in March 2020. In the following 2 months, April & May, inbound traffic held stable at zero with airports in the country remaining shut down. Arrivals to the country increased as restrictions were eased to permit necessary travel in May 2020, but these figures would not have included any tourist visitors.
When EU travel borders reopened in June 2021 and Spanish borders were opened to vaccinated foreign travelers, traveler arrival figures failed to rise as dramatically as they had in the blue group countries.
The number of inbound tourist arrivals increased from 400k-600k in early 2021, to 2.2, 3.4, and 5.2 million tourists in June, July, and August respectively. Despite the increase in tourist arrivals, these figures represent only about 40% of the 2019 figures through its high season.
Italy’s tourist arrival figures plot a similar trajectory to that of Spain, albeit with lower figures. Prior to the pandemic, Italy received between 3-5 million tourists during its low seasons and 6-8 million tourists during its high season travel months.
Italy reopened its borders in June 2021 with arrivals that month reaching around 1.8 million. In July 2021, that number increased to 3.1 million. That translates to a recovery rate of 27%, 35%, and 62% of pre-pandemic figures for its high season months of June, July & August 2021 respectively.
Although both Spain & Italy have reopened their borders to tourism, there remains great potential in reactivating their tourism sector due to their long-held positions at the top of the global tourism standings. Nevertheless, they are unlikely to quickly return to pre-pandemic levels of arrivals, due to their late border reopening & the COVID-19 travel restrictions currently in place.
While countries with strict travel restrictions struggle to recover their pre-pandemic numbers of visitors, those without such restrictions in place can expect to continue to see rising recovery rates. Just how long they can expect to do so, however, and whether they can expect to see their number of monthly arrivals eclipse previous records, remains to be seen.
- All calculated figures are Infomineo’s team analysis.
- All inbound tourism figures refer to visitors for the purposes of vacation or holiday. (Arrivals>Tourist>Leisure)
- High-season touristic months are calculated by Infomineo according to the seasonality charts provided by the UNWTO
- Arrivals: Includes the total number of entries from all border crossings (air, sea, and land)
- Tourist: Any visitor who spends at least one night at a destination country (regardless of accommodation type)
- High Season: The months in which a country usually receives the highest number of inbound travelers.
- To access the raw data and sources used, along with the team’s calculations, click here to download the file